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Grandparent Scams Take Advantage of Your Love for Your Family

Criminals can use artificial intelligence to pretend to be a grandchild in trouble


Gary Schildhorn was driving to his office when he received a phone call from his son Brett. “He was upset and crying. He told me he needed my help. He said was in a car accident … [he] was hurt, he was in trouble and a pregnant woman was injured.”

Shocked that his son had been arrested, Schildhorn was next contacted by someone who claimed he was Barry Goldstein, his son’s lawyer. Schildhorn used the number provided by the so-called lawyer to talk to court officials. In a series of rapid calls, Schildhorn learned he had two hours to wire $9,000 for bail from a special kiosk at a credit union.

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“It was not until the calls stopped and I was driving to the bank that I had an opportunity to think,” said Schildhorn, who recounted his story at a U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging’s hearing on scams and artificial intelligence (AI) last November. “I called my daughter-in-law, Kim, told her what happened and asked her to alert my son’s office that he had been in an accident.”

VIDEO: Tips to Avoid a Grandparent Scam

He soon received a FaceTime call from Brett, who said, “You are being scammed; see, I’m fine.” 

Schildhorn shared his experience at the hearing for one reason: To make others aware of just how convincing these scams can be.

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Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.

Millions of dollars lost

Schildhorn is thankful that he heard from his son before he lost money, but other grandparent-scam victims have not been so lucky.

In 2022 the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received 726,000 reports of impostor scams, a category that includes grandparent scams. Twenty-two percent of victims reported losing money in these scams, with a median of $650 lost per person.

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Many grandparent-scam victims lose far more. Last month, for example, a Wichita woman went to her bank to withdraw $20,000 after receiving a call from someone she thought was her granddaughter in need of help after a car accident. The bank teller suspected she was being targeted in a scam and halted the transaction before money was lost, according to a report by a local news station. (Some banks aren’t as proactive in stopping scams, as this story about an impersonation scam illustrates.)

The FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) sent out a public alert in November, noting that from January through September 2023 it received more than 195 victim complaints regarding grandparent scams, resulting in at least $1.9 million in victim losses.

AI facilitating voice cloning

The grandparent scam, as it’s commonly known, has been around for many years. Impostors pose as a relative, claiming they are in trouble and need money. But voice cloning and AI bring a new wrinkle, allowing criminals to use a clip of your loved one’s voice to impersonate them. That’s exactly what Schildhorn thinks happened in his case: “There was no doubt in my mind that it was his voice on the phone — it was the exact cadence with which he speaks,” he testified.

Scammers can clone your loved one’s voice with just three seconds of sound, according to a 2023 report by McAfee, which specializes in online protection solutions. A loved one’s voice can be picked up from TikTok, Instagram, YouTube and other social media sites and weaponized by criminals.

Common scenarios

What these scams have in common is the introduction of a time-sensitive emergency situation. Scammers may give you the impression that the longer it takes to get their money, the worse it will be for your loved one.

Here are typical scam scenarios:

  • A traffic accident or a robbery where your loved one has been injured. The accident location may be in a foreign country, even a location your loved one has traveled to, which scammers may have seen on a social media channel. 
  • An arrest for drunk driving where your loved one has injured a child or a pregnant woman. You may be contacted by a “cop” and a “lawyer” as well as “court staff,” all impostors.
  • You are given specific instructions on how to send money, usually involving gift cards, wire transfer or cryptocurrency.
  • Your loved one or the “official” tells you to keep the incident secret.

How to protect yourself from grandparent scams

Take these steps right now:

  • Set the privacy settings on your social media accounts so that only people you know can access your posts and photos. Scammers search Facebook, Instagram and other social networks for family information they can use to fool you.
  • Set up a code word with loved ones. McAfee suggests consumers set up a word only you and your loved ones know to verify that they are genuinely experiencing an emergency.

If a family member calls to say they are in trouble and in urgent need of money, follow this guidance:

  • Hang up immediately and call the family member in question on a known number, and try to reach their friends, workplace and other family members to check the story.
  • Work with family members or friends if you have any concern that the emergency could be real. Scammers plead with you to keep the situation a secret precisely so you won’t try to confirm it.
  • Verify the identity of anyone claiming to be law enforcement, a doctor or an official. Look up the relevant agency or official to verify the person’s identity and any information they’ve given you. Law enforcement will never contact a family member to collect bail money on behalf of someone else.
  • Don’t volunteer information. Scammers fish for facts they can use to make the impersonation believable.
  • Be wary of requests for payment. And note that cash, wired money, cryptocurrency and gift cards are scammers’ preferred methods of payment.
  • Above all, stay calm, no matter how dire the grandchild’s alleged predicament sounds. Criminals want to get you upset so you’re less likely to think clearly.

What to do if you’ve been a victim of a grandparent scam

  • Contact your bank immediately, in case there’s any chance they can stop or reverse the transaction, suggests Kathy Stokes, AARP’s director of fraud prevention programs.
  • Report the crime to local law enforcement.
  • File a report with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) online or at 877-382-4357. You might also want to notify your state’s attorney general and consumer protection office.  
  • Report the scam to the FBI IC3 at www.ic3.gov.
  • If you sent money to a suspected scammer via wire transfer, contact Western Union’s fraud hotline (800-448-1492) as soon as possible. For MoneyGram, call (800-926-9400) or report online.

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spinner image cartoon of a woman holding a megaphone

Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.